Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
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Beyond the Sun
In the midst of the Republican bloodbath Tuesday night, Gov. Jim Gibbons stepped to the podium at the Palazzo sports book and told the party faithful, “Tonight is about the beginning of a new hope for Republicans in the state of Nevada.”
He could not have been more wrong.
President-elect Barack Obama gave the Republican Party in Nevada a sound drubbing, beating Sen. John McCain by 12 percentage points and helping elect a wave of Democrats here. Republicans, now in the minority in both houses of the Legislature, lost two state Senate races and a congressional race, and saw their Assembly deficit increase by one.
The party is now bereft of candidates and organization and will face fundraising challenges.
Moreover, it is divided over how to interpret Tuesday’s results.
Are voters tired of conservative ideology, with its pursuit of unrestrained capitalism and aggressive, unilateral foreign policy?
Or are they weary merely of the current cast of Republicans and the unrelenting string of bad news, from Iraq to Katrina to Republican scandals in Congress to the Wall Street meltdown and bailout?
Those varying interpretations are feeding an emerging debate over whether Nevada Republicans should adhere to the small government principles of the late Barry Goldwater, or abandon them as outdated in dealing with the country’s new challenges, most important, the economy.
State Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, thinks Nevadans repudiated the state’s small-government, libertarian past.
“Nevada has gone in the last two to four years from center-right to center-left and it’s not going back,” he said. “We’re a blue state and we’re going to continue to be a blue state.
“If Republicans are going to survive we need to figure out a way to recruit and run candidates who are going to attract Democratic voters,” Hardy said.
Conservative activist Chuck Muth argued the opposite. Muth said the small government message is right. What’s needed, he says, is a new commitment to the same principles and better organization. In any case, he said, party leaders need to think small in order to rebuild, targeting a dozen legislative races in 2010 and registering voters in just those districts. The recovery could take years, he said.
“It’s a long road back,” said Ryan Erwin, a Republican consultant who actually had a decent night Tuesday, winning a few races. “Two years is a long time. But what we need is four or six years.”
Erwin said state party organizations must decide whether they are at root ideological or tactical. He would prefer a tactical organization, one that raises money and marshals resources for organization and communication, which is what state Democrats have been doing since they were routed in 2004. The party made incremental gains in 2006 before Tuesday’s sweep.
Erwin, who helped build the state Republican Party to its once dominant stature as its executive director before becoming a consultant, said in the next 60 days, the party will need to make decisions about leadership, staff and budget. (A call to state party Chairwoman Sue Lowden was not returned.)
A plan will have to pass muster with the party’s fundraisers and its remaining viable leadership — Rep. Dean Heller, Sen. John Ensign and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.
To be sure, much of the party’s dilemma is related to its national failures, a deeply unpopular president and his policies, the worsening economic woes, the long and inconclusive wars.
Steve Wark, another veteran Republican consultant, said he was turned on to Republican politics by figures such as former Congressman Jack Kemp, who offered innovative ideas about using the free market to create urban economic growth. The party needs to reconnect with ideas, Wark said, applying its principles to new problems, such as the crisis in American health care and its exploding cost, and energy and transportation.
Republicans might look to the example of former President Clinton, who developed a New Democratic agenda before becoming president, and then stole issues such as crime and welfare from the Republicans.
Republicans could do the same by coming to an agreement with Democrats on a plan for universal health care, albeit one with some free market elements, thereby taking off the table an issue Obama used this year to devastating effect.
Many Republicans, however, don’t see the election as a rebuke of free market orthodoxy. Some said the Democratic sweep was just part of the natural political cycle.
“It was a pretty good drubbing but I don’t think Republicans should panic,” said Robert Uithoven, whose two clients, state Sens. Bob Beers and Joe Heck, went down in defeat Tuesday. “The pendulum has swung in favor of the Democrats. It will swing back.”
The principles of the party — low taxes and limited government — are still sound, he said.
Can that be true given that the state’s biggest champion of those principles, Beers, lost his reelection bid by 6 percentage points?
Uithoven seemed dazed, like a badly beaten boxer, offering this competing view:
“We have to regroup and make sure we’re promoting good candidates who have ideas and do a better job of identifying what the challenges are out there and finding solutions to them. Ultimately people didn’t see solutions they were confident in from our party.”
Muth pointed to failures of tax initiatives across the state as proof of Nevada’s center-right electorate.
“This was a rejection of Republicans,” Muth said. “It was not a rejection of conservatism.” Indeed, Muth bolted from the party because he believes it had strayed from conservative principles.
He said Republican losses in a number of races, including the one in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, stemmed from failure to unify the conservative vote. Had Republicans consolidated the votes of Libertarians and American Independents, they would have clinched victory, he said.
That may be true for some races, but consolidating the right would not have prevented Sen. John McCain or Beers from going down. Obama won on a conservative platform of cutting taxes for most taxpayers, Muth said.
Not really. Obama called for a government hand to create near universal health care and investments in renewable energy. He called for more regulation of the financial sector and has promised to sign legislation that would help labor unions.
Muth cited taxes as the issue that could give Republicans a way back. The Legislature, spurred by a successful ballot initiative, will vote next year on whether to raise the room tax to fund education. Republicans should hold the line on the issue, forcing Democrats to own the tax increase, Muth said.
Uithoven also said the Democratic majority in Carson City could give Republicans an opportunity. “Democrats now have an opportunity to govern. No excuses,” he said. “They have the ability to set an agenda, and we’re going to have to keep a close eye on it.”
While Muth suggested focusing on campaign fodder for 2010, some Republicans seem intent on rehabilitating the party’s brand. “We have to become a more moderate party if we’re going to survive in the future,” Hardy said. “We can’t be obstructionists. I think we’ve got to be part of the solution.
“We can’t play politics,” he said. “The stakes are too high.”